What the NPS junior ranger program can teach CRMers

What can cultural resource management professionals learn from the National Park Service's Junior Ranger Program?Who would have ever thought a 5-year-old would be enthusiastic about seeing a pile of rocks in the desert? No toys. No playground. Just an 800-year-old archaeological ruin…and a little sister.

This last weekend, I took a National Parks and Monuments tour with my wife and kids through northern Arizona. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I moved to the state. We saw archaeological sites and amazing natural features, capped with a day at the Grand Canyon.

I was more than surprised. I was actually amazed by what I saw.

I’ve often joked about how, in Arizona, archaeology is so easy all you’ve got to do is look at the ground while walking across any unpaved lot. Why dig? You can find enough artifacts and features on the ground surface to fill out an entire CRM report.

The whole Southwest is blessed with rad archaeological resources, but you have to go beyond just looking at the ground. To see the major sites—Casa Grande, Wupatki, Montezuma Castle—I suggest you drive out there, walk through the area, and take in the entire space. You have to absorb the sense of place along with the actual site.

Many of Arizona’s major sites are protected by federal agencies. The National Park Service (NPS) has, arguably, done the most to make these sites available to the general public. I guess public outreach is the sole reason why the NPS even exists, so saying they’ve done the best job at telling the country about archaeology is somewhat unfair because they’re just fulfilling their mission. For the unfamiliar, the numerous kiosks, audio tours, and interactive displays provide a great introduction to the complex histories of these protected sites.

National parks and monuments with an archaeology nexus are perfect for the general public. The NPS does a great job of interpreting these places in a way folks of all ages can enjoy. They’re also an awesome way to learn more about archaeology for aspiring young archaeologists and a means of inculcating a conservationist’s ethos into today’s youth.

Promising to be an advocate

“As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned today, explore other parks and historic sites, and help preserve and protect these places so future generations can enjoy them.”

My son, who just turned 5-years-old, was initiated into the NPS Junior Ranger program at each of the five amazing national parks and monuments we visited. I was unaware of the Junior Ranger program before this weekend, but, quickly, I became a fan.

The program provides an opportunity for children 5 to 13 years old to learn more about nearly every national park in the country. There are two ways kids can become Junior Rangers: participate in a daily tour through the national park (this isn’t available at every park) or fill out an age-specific workbook as they tour the site with their families/classes.

Once they’ve completed their physical and educational challenge, kids can present their completed workbook to a ranger at the visitor’s center where they will be briefly quizzed on what they learned about this site. After taking a short oath (stated above), the child is presented with a Junior Ranger badge from that specific site.

The Junior Ranger program serves a number of different purposes. Parents like me are happy to have access to educational activities that will keep their kids’ minds off the vending machines and tourist tchotchkes in the visitors’ center while also maintaining their attention while touring the park. Contrary to popular belief, the majestic Grand Canyon is still a boring hole in the ground to most children while a cheap plastic telescope in the visitors’ center is an amazing treasure worth whining about for many hours. The Junior Ranger workbooks bring the child’s concentration back to the amazing place they have the good fortune to visit.

While not officially classified as propaganda, the Junior Ranger program also instills a sense of conservationism in young visitors. Their motto is “Explore, Learn, Protect,” but the program also has a vein of the “leave no trace” philosophy. Young people are encouraged to learn about the parks as they explore but to make sure others can enjoy the same experience.

This is important not only for the survival of the National Parks, which are facing myriad demographic troubles, it is also important for the maintenance of the high quality of life that most people in the United States enjoy. Preserving historical and archaeological sites allows future generations to be able to see where we’ve come from; however, making these places available to the general public goes one giant leap forward.

It’s one thing to say we’ve saved a pueblo from destruction and looting. It’s a whole different ballgame to provide the facilities necessary to allow thousands of tourists from around the world to come and see the pueblo, learn about how it was made, hear what we know about the people who used to live there, and read about the role this place plays in American culture.

Finally, Junior Rangers are encouraged to spread the word about the places they’ve visited. It’s not enough to write down what they’ve learned about the park and commemorate the visit with a plastic badge. Rangers are supposed to spread the word to their friends and peers. Already I’ve gotten a lot of Facebook inquiries about the program and how other Tucson parents can involve their children at nearby parks.

What the cultural resource management industry can learn from the Junior Ranger program

I’m not going to go into detail about what I wish the NPS was doing with the Junior Ranger program with regard to teaching children about archaeology. Park rangers are not archaeologists and they’re trying to provide a huge volume of education to visitors that understand archaeology to varying degrees. The parks we visited this week were dedicated to telling the world about the amazing geological, biological, and archaeological attributes of their particular park. I felt like they did an exemplary job.

Since archaeologists need to connect to the general public— especially children—here are some of the things I thought the NPS Junior Ranger program does really, really well and how CRM archaeology can incorporate some of these themes to become more of a community asset than a “business”:

Planning for the future— From the oath Junior Rangers take to the workbooks they fill out, this NPS program assumes people will visit that same park in the future. Unlike the cultural resource management archaeology industry, NPS rangers assume Junior Rangers will grow up, have families, and bring their children to the park. Thus, each ranger is a future customer that will bring their own junior rangers.

Cultural resource management does little to plan for the future, even though the stuff we dig up and write about will exist for decades (centuries, if we’re lucky). It also fails to assume that anybody else will be doing CRM in the future or will be interested in what we’re doing. Planning for the future is, perhaps, the most important thing the cultural resource management industry can do to ensure its survival.

This goes beyond lobbying Congress to keep historic preservation laws. Just like the Junior Ranger program, we need to initiate young people into the ethos of historic preservation, archaeology, and heritage conservation. This can start at the local level with the goal of spreading nationally then internationally.

Inculcating stewardship— Junior Rangers are immediately taught that it is their duty to take care of the park’s resources. The oath they take clearly states they are empowered to be good caretakers of this special place.

I’ve never heard the terms “stewardship” and “cultural resource management” used in the same sentence (except for just now). We are supposed to manage cultural resources, right? But, our management ends with the submission of an excavation report and, sometimes, an academic journal article. How do we manage the data we’ve collected or the experiences we’ve had? Is being a manager the same thing as being a steward? Can we be stewards of the art of archaeology while also being corporate managers? There are no easy answers but solving at least one of these quandaries will do much to keep CRM relevant in the future.

Concept of sharing with others— What do you do when you want to learn about a new restaurant, need to find a hotel, or are thinking about buying a new product? The first thing you do is consult the internet. After you’ve gathered some options, smart consumers ask their friends about their selection on Facebook. We turn to each other when we need information because the internet is flooded with slimy disinformation. We trust our friends and family way more than some online marketer or blogger. Social media marketers know this. They are climbing all over each other to get word-of-mouth recommendations because they know personal recommendations work. Indeed, it’s the only form of advertising that has ever worked.

Telling others about their experiences at the park is central to the Junior Ranger program. This is a major element in perpetuating the system and providing for the survival of these “off-the-beaten-path” parks because, just like stewardship, it turns pedestrian observation into the most trustworthy form of advertisement you can find: a personal recommendation from a person you believe and trust.

When a kid tells another kid they had a great time at Tuzigoot, they create a reason to drive all the way through Cottonwood, Arizona and climb to the top of a 1,000-year-old pueblo.

I believe cultural resource management archaeologists want to share their stories with the general public, but:

  • We don’t really know how to connect with “normal” people. Most of us are so nerdy and socially inept we have trouble conveying what we’ve learned to non-archaeologists.
  • We work behind a client-to-client relationship that, sometimes keeps us from talking about what we find. What developer wants the public to know they’re building an outlet mall on top of a prehistoric village where the bodies of Native American ancestors were dug up to make way for a parking lot? CRMers have even gotten fired for talking about their work on social media.
  • We aren’t used to public outreach. Not only are we tongue-tied in front of a vernacular audience, we aren’t even used to working around their prying eyes and prying questions.
  • It just isn’t a priority. Landing contracts, making deadlines, coming in on budget, and making money is a major priority for most CRM companies. Doing justice to our art is another concern, but at many places it’s lower on the totem pole than making money. Sharing data isn’t even on the totem pole.

Sharing is part of the inherent altruism is central to being a human being. I think we can do a better job of sharing our data if we communicate along the lines we do to a young child. I don’t mean we use a patronizing voice the way we do to a toddler.

In order to connect with the public, I suggest we talk, blog, write, vlog, and use social media at a basic level that highlights the good and shies away from the less good:

  • Know your audience’s knowledge level. It’s been decades since most American adults took a geology, biology, or chemistry class. I’ve met adults that didn’t even know that sites get covered through sedimentation. Assume your audience knows absolutely nothing. Start explaining what we’re doing from the most basic level and only expand if it seems like anyone is sincerely interested in what you’re saying.
  • Know how much is too much information. Good developers are relatively transparent with their plans because they know, rather than fighting the local community, it’s easier to take the needs of the local community into account. Others haven’t gotten this message. Know if your client wants you to share any information and, if so, how much (FYI: Exact site locations are pretty much never okay to share.)
  • Always keep it simple. Avoid jargon or data overload. Most people can only think/care about archaeology for about 20 minutes before they’re phubbing you for a Facebook update. Keep your message short and sweet.
  • Explain what’s in it for them. How does this site improve their lives? How does your data relate to the real world of today? Just like a 2-year-old wants to know why listening to you is in her best benefit, you need to explain how this site helps the world we are living in today.

 (HINT: Nobody cares about us learning more about the past for our own posterity. The public gets their info from NatGeo and the History Channel. They don’t care about scholarly production or the intellectual development that results from archaeology. But, they do care about how these ancient techniques can help us become more energy efficient, maintain vibrant communities, cure diseases, and improve our society.)

How to become one of cultural resource management archaeology’s Junior Rangers

The NPS also has a junior archaeologist program (download a PDF of the workbook here). It was created by the Southeast Archaeological Center, but, based on my recent experience, this isn’t part of the rubric at most parks. The workbook on the NPS Junior Ranger website also looks like it’s geared toward an older audience and is part of a much longer program than the small, site-specific Jr. Ranger workbooks you get at parks like the Grand Canyon and Montezuma Castle. However, this PDF is really comprehensive and gives a great understanding of how archaeology works and how we know what we do about the past.

Cultural resource management archaeologists can become archaeology’s junior rangers. We don’t need a workbook or formal program. All we have to do is embody the ethos of “explore, learn, protect” and share our craft with others.

Tucson is the only place I’ve lived where the people I meet aren’t really impressed with the fact that I’m a professional archaeologist. Meeting an archaeologist in Tucson isn’t that extraordinary. Most educated Tucsonans know an archaeologist. There were four of us among the parents of my son’s preschool class last year.

In other communities, archaeologists are rare. People are always interested in what we have to say, at least for the first 5 minutes. All we have to do is harness this public curiosity to help them learn more about what archaeology contributes to society and why it’s important to protect archaeological resources. This shouldn’t be too difficult as long as we don’t treat the general public like archaeology insiders, site looters, or archaeology aficionados. The public cares, but along the same way they care about the melting glaciers on Greenland: it’s sad but what can we do?

Archaeological sites are part of our local heritage. Historic preservation and heritage conservation are the vehicles we use to be good stewards of our pasts. There are dozens of things the general public can do to conserve our heritage but it all starts with information. Cultural resource management archaeologists can be the facilitators of this information flow with the goal of preserving the past for future generations.

Write a comment below or send me an email.

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